No Jail for Thought

NO JAIL FOR THOUGHT, by Lev Kopelev. 268 pages. (Seeker and Warburg) £6.

Lev Kopelev is best known in the west not so much for his own writing but for his friendship in the camps with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It was Kopelev on whom the great author based the character of the idealistic Jewish Communist Rubin in The First Circle.

This well-written book is, in fact, an abridged version of Kopelev’s original Russian-language memoir of his arrest and trial at the end of the Second World War. It is, however, more than an autobiographical account, for in its more analytical parts, it takes on the nature of a confession.

Kopelev feels that he has much to admit to. Yet stripped of the heroics of hollow sloganeering his conduct is purely humanitarian. He is the classic Jewish middle-class intellectual who wishes so much to participate in the building of Communism and is so perplexed when he witnesses acts in that creation which are devoid of moral values. In his spiritual beliefs, he looks beyond Judaism to the party and the victory of the forces of internationalism. He is, above all, a Soviet citizen, an assimilated Jew who numbly regards an act of anti-Semitism as solely an act against socialism.

Kopelev’s sense of justice and interpretation of Marxism lead him to distinguish between the German people and the Nazi butchers. The distinction, however, did not seem so obvious to the glorious Red Army which raped and pillaged its .way from the Prussian border to Berlin. In his job as both interpreter and propagandist in the German language, Kopelev was often able to save German women and children as well as hitherto clandestine members of the pre-war German Communist Party. His actions did not endear him to his commanding officer who grew to detest his intellectualism as well as his conception of truth. Moreover, no one could understand why a Jew should wish to save Germans.

Kopelev’s road of destiny led through the Butyrki prison into a stay of over nine years in the Gulag Archipelago. Despite his high ideals, his belief in Stalin, his many decorations as a Red Army major and his influence as a German language scholar, he suffered like the rest in the camps. Yet his belief in the triumph of a Communism purged of its Stalinist stigma led him to fight for his reinstatement in the party after his release.

But his passion for truth was unquenchable and it was Kopelev’s direct intervention that led to the unprecedented publication of a work about the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn’s first book, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. In the mid-1960s, Kopelev’s conscience was again touched when young writers such as Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky were persecuted. His protests ended in a new expulsion from the party and, more recently, from the Writers’ Union.

This is an important book as it offers a different approach to the question of dissidence. Even if the reader does not concur with Kopelev’s thinking, he will certainly warm to the courage of his moral stand and his actual physical courage.

Jewish Observer 23 June 1977

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